The Sexual Abuse-to-Prison Pipeline

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At the Intersections of Race, Gender, and Mass Incarceration

Over the past couple of years, sexual violence in America has received much more attention as the issue of sexual assault on college campuses has exploded into the mainstream consciousness. As the public, students, and higher education institutions continue to grapple with this epidemic, the Human Rights Project for Girls reminds us with their recently released study, The Sexual Abuse To Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story, that sexual violence does not impact only college age youth. It impacts young girls, particularly young girls of color (primarily African-Americans, Latinas, and Native Americans) as well as youth who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) or gender non-conforming (GNC). Young girls of color and LGBT/GNC girls are at a particularly high risk because the justice system punishes youth of color and youth who do not conform to gender norms much more harshly than their white heterosexual counterparts.

What does sexual abuse have to do with incarceration?

Experiencing sexual abuse puts girls at enormous risk for arrest and incarceration. When girls are arrested, it is rarely because they have committed a violent crime. More often than not, they are arrested because they have become truant, run away, or engage in substance abuse (which are called status offenses for youth under 18). Why did they stop going to school or run away from home? The answer, in many cases, is that girls are running away from abusive situations. They are then arrested and locked up for running away.  This is the cycle that is the sexual abuse-to-prison pipeline. At the root of this cycle is sexual violence. The reactions girls have to this violence — which they are punished for — are merely coping behaviors.

Wait, so…they are victims of sexual abuse, and they run away to escape the abuse, but running away is a crime, so they get arrested?

Yep. That’s what is so unjust about all of this. Girls become involved with the juvenile justice system because of the way they have responded to the trauma of sexual abuse. But running away, truancy, and substance abuse are all common and understandable reactions to abuse and ought to be treated as warning signs and NOT criminalized.

The juvenile justice system does not have a great history of adequately addressing trauma. In fact, the reason why the sexual abuse-to-prison pipeline is considered a cycle is that young girls often end up right back whether they started. First, they are victims of sexual violence. Then, they engage in coping behaviors that result in their incarceration. Next, they are subject to the traumatic experience of incarceration itself with very limited access to services. Finally, they are released back into the initially abusive environment, where they once again engage in the same trauma coping behaviors. And what do you think happens then? They are arrested again. Rinse and Repeat. And Repeat. And Repeat.

Well, this is a bit overwhelming. What are we supposed to do?

It sure is overwhelming.  The thing about responding to social injustice is that there’s never just one solution. There are people who are doing a lot of work to change laws and policies that negatively impact the lives of youth who are victims of sexual violence. And that’s a good thing. But there are also things that we can do as social workers, community educators, crisis intervention specialists, and community members.

Acknowledge that sexual violence impacts everyone across race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity.

Make the connections. Child sexual abuse is a problem. The mass incarceration of people of color in this country is a problem. These two problems are connected. There are some organizations that have analyzed the connections between the prison system and sexual violence.

Respond appropriately. Sexual violence is not just about the act itself. It brings with it many repercussions that are faced primarily by the victims and not nearly enough by the perpetrators. We need to make sure that the aftermath of sexual violence is not as traumatic as — or MORE traumatic than — the act itself.

Look deeper. What we see as defiant or undesirable behavior on the part of youth are often responses to and symptoms of trauma. Take the time to figure out what is really going on instead of witnessing a behavior and immediately labeling it as problematic.

Speak out. Find and contact your representative today! Join Rights4Girls in telling our members of Congress that child sex trafficking and gender-based violence against young women and girls must end now.

I mean it when I say that we can end sexual violence. But it’s going to take all of us working together to make a change.

Dolores Chandler recently joined the Center as our Prevention Coordinator. As a member of the Community Education team, they coordinate our StartStrong program, working to prevent peer-to-peer perpetration of violence among adolescents.

The Untested Rape Kit Backlog – Part 2

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If you missed Part 1 of this story, you can access it here

In the last post, we covered what a rape kit is, and the scope of the rape kit backlog. In this post we will pick up with the progress and challenges of getting to the bottom of the backlog.

Successes so Far

rape-kits-backlogFifteen states and dozens of municipalities have made the pledge to get to the bottom of the backlog, with huge success: thousands of kits have been processed, identifying hundreds of serial rapists. After a 2011 call by the Ohio Attorney General to process old rape kits, over 8,000 kits were sent to Ohio’s state crime lab, and over 4,000 have been tested so far. These tests have resulted in 1,474 matches with the national DNA database—over 35% of kits that had been sitting in storage had a match. What is even more staggering is that at least 200 suspected serial rapists have been identified. Houston mayor, Annise Parker, prioritized the processing of rape kits, even though it cost $5.9 million. They turned up 894 DNA hits on the national database.

North Carolina

The State Crime Lab of North Carolina prides itself on processing rape kits sent to their lab immediately. However, even “immediately” still means survivors are waiting 18 months to 2 years for results. According to a recent report, the state crime labs are struggling with recruitment and retention of scientists, many of whom leave after only a short time for better paying jobs in the private sector. The state is taking steps to decrease turnaround time for DNA evidence by opening a new lab and hiring additional scientists, and the General Assembly is considering salary increases to improve retention. An unfortunate consequence of the delay is that after two years of waiting, it is harder to secure a conviction, and sometimes survivors just want to move on.

In Charlotte, where they have their own crime lab, a spokesperson for the Charlotte-Mecklenberg Police Department stated that even though there is a backlog of 1,019 kits, this number should not be taken seriously, because over 600 of those were from cases that had been closed. But a major argument for the processing of kits in the backlog is to find hits even in closed cases. For example, a kit that was not processed due to lack of evidence could produce a match with DNA previously entered for a no-suspect rape case, or another rape case closed for lack of evidence—putting the pieces together can strengthen both cases and help get serial rapists off the streets.

For Survivors

Bringing perpetrators to justice seems like a win-win for survivors and society. For many survivors, having their rape kits tested finally brings credibility to their stories that may have been dismissed by law enforcement or even family and friends. It may bring a sense of closure and vindication. Debbie Smith, after whom the 2004 Debbie Smith Act is named, described feeling the end of six years of fear and torment when her rape kit turned up a match for someone who was in prison for another crime.

Another facet of processing old rape kits, however, is that some of the kits are years, even decades, old. Some jurisdictions notify survivors when a kit is finally processed or only when a match is found. This notification process can be deeply painful for many survivors. Being contacted out of the blue by law enforcement about a rape that happened years ago can be very traumatic. Wherever the survivor is in their healing process, they may be plunged back into memories of the assault and possibly even called to appear in court. Even for survivors who had been longing to get the chance to put their perpetrator behind bars, this can be a highly stressful and tumultuous process.

Our Services

A key component of the Center’s services is offering information and support before, during, and after a rape kit is collected. Our companions are trained to help prepare survivors for the physical and emotional realities of a rape kit, and they can accompany survivors to the emergency room to support them through the process if they choose to go ahead with the collection. The Center also offers free and confidential support to anyone at any point in their healing journey, be it days or decades after an assault.

Other Resources

Rosemary Byrnes is a summer intern at the Center while she works toward her Master in Social Work degree at UNC-Chapel Hill. She works with the client services team to support survivors in our community.

The Untested Rape Kit Backlog – Part 1

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The CSI Effect

textrib-rapekits-003Crime shows on TV make it look so easy. You see investigators talking with the weeping victim, and then the scene cuts to someone walking in with coffee in one hand and a file folder in the other. The results came back from the lab and they’ve got a match. Unfortunately, in real life, evidence collection and processing after a sexual assault is often a traumatic, time-consuming procedure, fraught with prejudice, victim-blaming, and political pressures.

What is a Rape Kit?

A “rape kit” is shorthand for the process that a survivor can choose to undergo within 72 hours of a sexual assault to preserve evidence that may link the perpetrator to the crime. Essentially, the survivor’s body is the scene of the crime, and a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) collects samples of anything that might contain DNA or other physical evidence, such as swabs of the mouth and genitals, the survivor’s clothing, and brushings from the survivor’s body. The SANE nurse also takes pictures and documents any injuries. Samples of the survivor’s blood, saliva, and hair (both head hair and pubic hair) are taken to compare to any other evidence found. The survivor’s full medical history as well as an account of the assault is recorded. The rape kit collection usually takes four to six hours to complete, during which time the survivor is discouraged from eating, drinking, or using the bathroom. The evidence is then packed up in a box and handed over to law enforcement.

In North Carolina, if the survivor is not filing a police report right then, the box is put in storage for up to one year and can be retrieved if and when the survivor decides to press charges. If an investigation is opened, the DNA collected from the survivor’s body can be compared to the DNA of a suspect if there is one, or entered into the national DNA database to see if there is a match with anyone already known to law enforcement. DNA can confirm known suspects, identify unknown suspects, or eliminate suspects from the investigation.

The Scope of the Backlog

It is estimated that around the country, over 400,000 rape kits are sitting on shelves unprocessed. The exact number is unknown because few police precincts or crime labs keep data on the rape kits they process or have waiting in storage. How does this pile-up happen? Despite what you might think from watching CSI, this evidence is time-consuming and costly to put through the crime lab. Each rape kit costs between $900 and $1,600 to process, and if the prosecutor or police feel there is not a solid-enough case to prosecute the perpetrator, the kit may go untested, even if the survivor files a police report.

While this may seem fiscally responsible to some, it has devastating consequences. An investigative report by the Cleveland Plain Dealer revealed that the majority of the kits that were not processed were collected from survivors who were minorities, had mental illnesses or disabilities, were homeless, or were sex workers. In essence, survivors were profiled by police and prosecutors for their “believability” (or lack thereof), and in some cases the survivors themselves were not even interviewed before the cases were closed. Tragically, law enforcement was using the same kind of profiling used by rapists to prey upon society’s most vulnerable.

What is being done?

In the past decade there have been public and political appeals to end the rape kit backlog. Several pieces of legislation, such as the Debbie Smith Act and the SAFER Act, have been passed to understand the scope of the backlog and allocate funding to help states process kits.

In the next post, we will explore the successes and challenges in the quest to end the rape kit backlog, as well as what is happening here in North Carolina. Stay tuned!

Read Part 2 here.

Rosemary Byrnes is a summer intern at the Center while she works toward her Master in Social Work degree at UNC-Chapel Hill. She works with the client services team to support survivors in our community.

Everything Is Awful and I’m Not Okay

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Questions to Ask Before Giving Up

everything hurtsAre you hydrated? If not, have a glass of water.

Have you eaten in the past three hours? If not, get some food — something with protein, not just simple carbs. Perhaps some nuts or hummus?

Have you showered in the past day? If not, take a shower right now.

If daytime: are you dressed? If not, put on clean clothes that aren’t pajamas. Give yourself permission to wear something special, whether it’s a funny t-shirt or a pretty dress.

If nighttime: are you sleepy and fatigued but resisting going to sleep? Put on pajamas, make yourself cozy in bed with a teddy bear and the sound of falling rain, and close your eyes for fifteen minutes — no electronic screens allowed. If you’re still awake after that, you can get up again; no pressure.

Have you stretched your legs in the past day? If not, do so right now. If you don’t have the spoons for a run or trip to the gym, just walk around the block, then keep walking as long as you please. If the weather’s crap, drive to a big box store (e.g. Target) and go on a brisk walk through the aisles you normally skip.

Have you said something nice to someone in the past day? Do so, whether online or in person. Make it genuine; wait until you see something really wonderful about someone, and tell them about it.

Have you moved your body to music in the past day? If not, do so — jog for the length of an EDM song at your favorite BPM, or just dance around the room for the length of an upbeat song.

Have you cuddled a living being in the past two days? If not, do so. Don’t be afraid to ask for hugs from friends or friends’ pets. Most of them will enjoy the cuddles too; you’re not imposing on them.

Do you feel ineffective? Pause right now and get something small completed, whether it’s responding to an e-mail, loading up the dishwasher, or packing your gym bag for your next trip. Good job!

Do you feel unattractive? Take a selfie. Your friends will remind you how great you look, and you’ll fight society’s restrictions on what beauty can look like.

Do you feel paralyzed by indecision? Give yourself ten minutes to sit back and figure out a game plan for the day. If a particular decision or problem is still being a roadblock, simply set it aside for now, and pick something else that seems doable. Right now, the important part is to break through that stasis, even if it means doing something trivial.

Have you seen a therapist in the past few days? If not, hang on until your next therapy visit and talk through things then.

Have you been over-exerting yourself lately — physically, emotionally, socially, or intellectually? That can take a toll that lingers for days. Give yourself a break in that area, whether it’s physical rest, taking time alone, or relaxing with some silly entertainment.

Have you changed any of your medications in the past couple of weeks, including skipped doses or a change in generic prescription brand? That may be screwing with your head. Give things a few days, then talk to your doctor if it doesn’t settle down.

Have you waited a week? Sometimes our perception of life is skewed, and we can’t even tell that we’re not thinking clearly, and there’s no obvious external cause. It happens. Keep yourself going for a full week, whatever it takes, and see if you still feel the same way then.

You’ve made it this far, and you will make it through. You are stronger than you think.

Re-posted from Eponis | Sinope on Tumblr (original post here and follow-up post here).

Writing to Unravel a Taboo

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For one survivor of sexual abuse, writing emerges as key for personal and societal healing.



Ruminating by Naomi Heitz

“Unspeakable,” says the pope. I cringe. That’s just it, I think. Even when he’s publicly trying to apologize for the horrific crimes and secrecy within the church, he’s choosing a word that literally encourages more silence. It’s September 2010, and I wonder if Pope Benedict wishes that the world would stop speaking about the church’s sexual abuse history.

I certainly have felt in my own life the heavy weight of the taboo about speaking about sexual abuse. The outer threads of this dense blanketing taboo have started unraveling as the prevalence of sexual violation becomes more accepted. As a survivor of sexual abuse (note: not in the Catholic church), I can sense more tightly knitted fabric creating the core of the taboo. It’s our society’s preference to not look at or hear about the personal damage created by sexual violence. It lands in my body as a taut band that keeps my ribs from expanding comfortably when I breathe. It’s a spongy clog in my throat and a trace of nausea building in my gut. The taboo becomes friends with the direct damage from sexual trauma and feeds the pain. It’s difficult to fully heal in a culture that on the whole doesn’t get how wide-ranging and long-lasting sexual trauma symptoms can be.

Writing about my experiences helps me spread the fibers of the suffocating taboo. I write what tumbles through my mind. I translate into words the reverberations, blocks, and floods of trauma imprints within my body. Writing documents my healing patterns, releases my pain, and lets more clarity flow through me. With clarity comes more courage. So I continue to write and speak, even as I meet the taboo on an almost daily basis.

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SafeTouch Success Story

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alexis and puppetsThe Center has presented SafeTouch to kids in our community for over 30 years. These violence prevention education programs use evidence-based best practices in age-appropriate lessons to promote safety and reduce child sexual abuse. The curriculum is continually reviewed and updated with teacher and parent input.

Child sexual abuse (CSA) is unfortunately much more common than many people realize. Darkness to Light (D2L), a national organization to end child abuse, estimates that about 1 in 10 children experience sexual abuse before their 18th birthday. Even more children experience non-contact sexual abuse. Only about a third of kids tell someone when they experience abuse. CSA occurs across all demographic groups and can have long-lasting negative impacts such as physical and mental health problems, emotional and behavioral issues, and poor academic performance.

Though the problem of CSA looms large, the Center has a successful prevention program on multiple counts. First, by sheer numbers, we are very successful in getting these crucial public safety messages out to the county. We present SafeTouch programs in every classroom of every elementary school in both local school districts. Overall, we reached 14,805 youth and adults in 865 education programs during the 2013-2014 school year.

Second, we know that our programs work! Through rigorous assessment and evaluation, we found that 94 percent of 4th graders who had been in our program in the year previous could accurately remember the safety saying. Additionally, when compared with students who had not received Safe Touch programs, students who had been through our 4th and 5th grade programs were significantly more likely to accurately identify cyber-bullying and sexual harassment and to have positive beliefs about reporting inappropriate or unwanted behaviors.

And third, we help stop abuse in our community. We train our staff and volunteers to look for signs of possible child abuse, or ‘red flags,’ during programs. We work with school personnel and Child Protective Services to investigate any disclosures or red flags and ensure that children receive the services they need. During the 2013-2014 school year, we followed up on 12 direct disclosures of abuse received during our classroom presentations and on 119 ‘red flag’ signs of potential abuse. For any of those children who disclosed abuse or exhibited red flag behaviors, the support and care they received through our intervention is a success story indeed.

For information about our programs and how to request one for your group, visit

Interested in getting involved? We are now accepting applications for SafeTouch Educators, StartStrong Educators, and a CSA Prevention Intern!

Alyson Culin is our Development & Marketing Director. She supports the Center through fundraising, communications, and outreach efforts.

PREA: A Long Road for Incarcerated Survivors

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“Sexual abuse is a crime, and should not be the punishment for a crime.”
– US Department of Justice Letter to Governors, March 5, 2015

prison stock photoWhile this statement might seem obvious to those who work in sexual violence prevention and response, it represents a profound shift in how the wider public, and even those in corrections, view sexual assault in the context of prison. Rape and sexual harassment have long been considered an inevitable—or even deserved—part of the prison experience. Additionally, sexual violence is ingrained in the prison system, perpetrated (by inmates as well as guards) as a means of establishing and maintaining power dynamics and prison hierarchy.

The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) was passed in 2003 to address the epidemic of sexual assault in all corrections facilities, but comprehensive guidelines didn’t take effect until 2012, with the National Standards to Prevent, Detect, and Respond to Prison Rape. Finally, just this month, May 2015, the Department of Justice will begin to enforce those guidelines by withholding funding from states that are not in compliance. The National Standards specify that any confinement facility (including prisons, jails, lock-ups, juvenile facilities, and community and immigrant detention centers) must:

  • Adopt a “zero-tolerance policy” towards sexual assault and sexual harassment
  • Train both staff and inmates on sexual abuse
  • Train staff on effective and professional communication with LGBTQ and gender non-conforming inmates
  • Provide at least two internal and one external way for inmates to report abuse
  • Provide access to outside advocates for emotional support related to the abuse, and provide as much confidentiality as possible
  • Discipline perpetrators of sexual assault, both guards and inmates
  • Separate youth in adult correctional facilities and prevent unsupervised contact with adults
  • Provide access to support services for inmates with disabilities and limited English proficiency
  • Ensure inmates have timely access to appropriate medical and mental health services, on par with community level of care

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Affirmative Consent Legislation Proposed in NC

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Get excited y’all because NORTH CAROLINA IS CONSIDERING AFFIRMATIVE CONSENT LEGISLATION!!! Currently, California is the only state that has passed an affirmative consent law, but, as you can see on this map from, 14 more states – including North Carolina – are currently considering similar laws. At the end of last month, North Carolina State Senators Floyd McKissick (D; Durham, Granville) and Jeff Tarte (R; Mecklenburg) submitted an Affirmative Consent Standards Bill to the N.C. State Legislature, which is very similar to the one in California.

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Cupcakes & Cocktails: Meet the Judges!

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As Cupcakes & Cocktails rapidly approaches, we are excited to announce the panel of judges for this year’s cupcake contest. With a wide range of experiences and backgrounds, we can’t wait to hear their feedback as they sample the scrumptious sweets available this Sunday!

Sera Cuni

Sera Cuni

Sera Cuni grew up in Trumbull, Connecticut, with a family of self-taught cooks who enthusiastically embraced their Italian and Czech heritages. After attending Green Mountain College in Vermont on a soccer scholarship, Sera took her passion for food and cooking back to Connecticut, where she graduated from culinary school. Over the course of her career, Sera has worked at the Fearrington House Inn and Nordstrom’s Café. In 2006, Sara Foster hired her as a chef and kitchen manager for the Foster’s Market Chapel Hill restaurant. Since then, she and her wife Susan have purchased the Chapel Hill location and continue to abide by Sara Foster’s primary food ethic—that great food doesn’t have to be fancy. These days, you can catch Sera working away as co-owner and chef at The Root Cellar Cafe & Catering.

Yelena Etten

Yelena Etten

Yelena Etten has been interested in baking for as long as she has loved sugar. She remembers helping her mother make yeast rolls at the tender age of 3. Once her family moved from Russia in 1992, she signed up for her first cake decorating class and was the youngest student in the class. She has been making cakes for the last 20+ years, perfecting her technique and flavor combinations. She was the Cupcake Champion for the Center’s Cupcakes & Cocktails in 2014 and is looking forward to helping judge all of the yummy cupcakes this year.

Bill Smith

Bill Smith

Bill Smith hails from the town of New Bern on the North Carolina coast. An accomplished chef and writer, his food writing has been featured in well-known publications like the New York Times, and his cooking has twice earned him a vote into the final five for James Beard’s Regional Best Chef award. Bill currently creates interesting spins on classic Southern dishes at Crook’s Corner, which was named one of “America’s Classics” by the James Beard Foundation. After 22 years at Crook’s Corner, he continues to interpret heirloom recipes, often resulting in iconic dishes. There’s talk across the nation about his Atlantic Beach Pie, but locals  know that it’s the decadent Honeysuckle Sorbet – available only briefly each May – that’s worth the annual wait.

Molly Stillman

Molly Stillman

Molly Stillman has been sharing her likes, dislikes, and a piece of her mind with the internet for nearly a decade as a life and style blogger. On her blog, Still Being Molly, she writes daily about fashion and beauty, some of her favorite recipes, her DIY and home decor projects, essential oils, photography, product reviews, and life as a wife and mother, and even about money. She’s basically your best friend and a Jane-of-all-trades. Her main passion is entertaining and inspiring others through empowering women to look and feel confident in the skin God gave them. Molly currently resides in Durham with her husband John, their daughter Lilly, and their two dogs, Audrey Hepburn and Tater.

Dorothy Tong

Dorothy Tong

Dorothy Tong is The Cupcake Princess and a champion from the Food Network’s “Cupcake Wars.” She was a proprietor of Cupcake & Cookie, her innovative bakery located in the heart of Los Angeles, California, until she moved to Durham in pursuit of her MBA at Duke University. With her passion for extraordinary desserts, Dorothy’s Cupcake & Cookie specialized in cupcake-filled cookies, cookie-filled cupcakes, and liquid truffles.

Get your tickets for Cupcakes & Cocktails at for only $40 through April 10. After that, a limited number of tickets will be available at the door for $50. See you on Sunday!

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SAAM Online Activism: Use Your Hashtag for Good

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activistforchangeThis year, you can spread awareness during Sexual Assault Awareness Month without ever having to leave your keyboard. Ever since the word “hashtag” made its way into Merriam-Webster dictionary, it seems we can no longer ignore the power behind the little symbol, once known as the “pound sign.” Online activism is trending now and what better way to spread awareness about sexual violence than through the power of the internet. In a world where social media is so pervasive, we invite you to participate in SAAM and use your hashtags to advocate for the end of sexual violence.

Ujpeg (2)sing the #SAAM or #SAAM2015 hashtags not only increases awareness to those who follow you, but also connects you with other activists in the movement. Take to Twitter to share the news and inspirational tweets of fellow advocates. See below for details on an Anti-Street Harassment Tweetathon on April 14, where you can be a part of a global event, 140 characters at a time.

InstagramOf course, Twitter isn’t the only outlet to paint the town teal. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) is challenging Instagram users to a #30DaysOfSAAM Instagram contest. Follow them on Instagram @nsvrc to see each week’s challenge posted. Below is an image of the challenge for week one of SAAM. Good luck!

#30DAYSOFSAAM Instagram Contest

jpeg (1) Another way to stay involved is through our Facebook page. There you can find links to events, related articles, photos, and news from the Center during #SAAM2015. Invite your friends to like our page. Be sure to RSVP to the different events we’re hosting this month and invite your friends to those events as well.

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